Glendalough - An Age Old Attraction

The title of this gallery captures an important aspect of Glendalough – it has been an attraction for people since the time of St. Kevin. People came here to be part of the life of St. Kevin.

They came on pilgrimage and in penance, seeking a place of spirituality and tranquility. The medieval lives of St Kevin tells the story that he brought back soil from Rome and sprinkled it in the church and cemetery in Glendalough.  This reportedly made Glendalough one of the four chief places of pilgrimage in Ireland with seven pilgrimages to Glendalough being considered to be of equal value to one pilgrimage to Rome. This would have added to the numbers coming to this area.

Many phases in its history

Glendalough has had many phases in its history:  its golden age of monasticism, the introduction of religious orders, the reformation, its decline and then it rising again, like the phoenix in the late 18th when it again became a place of pilgrimage. This time it was the gentry who were interested in experiencing the picturesque landscape and romanticism of the ruined valley. Glendalough and the Wicklow mountains became an important part of every tourist’s visit to Ireland.

Visitors to the Valley

From as early as the 1770s visitors were coming to Glendalough to view the antiquities and to explore the beauties of the valley. It was seen as important that the ruins which had lain waste for centuries should be recorded for posterity and that the Glendalough of the latter half of the 18th century has been preserved is due in no small manner to the Huguenot artist Gabriel Beranger and the Italian painter and architect Angelo Maria Bigari.  They came in October 1779, stayed in Derrybawn House, the home of James Critchley and despite bad weather produced many drawings which were collected in a volume and presented to the Royal Irish Academy.

Following this resurgent interest in antiquities people such as Edward Wakefield who visited Glendalough in 1809, Sir Walter Scott in 1825, John Barrow in 1835, the German writer Kohl, Bartlett and O’Malley Irwin all came in the 1840s, as did Mr and Mrs Samuel Hall.  Since then various illustrated guides have been written, each one giving a personal interpretation of what Glendalough held for that particular individual. These accounts have served Glendalough well over the years as they portrayed Glendalough as a mystical, romantic, picturesque landscape with something on offer for all comers. They were in effect performing the modern day equivalent of the marketing guru, depicting Glendalough as a place that must be seen and therefore enticing further visitors and writers to the Wicklow Mountains.

Not everyone was able to travel

Not everyone was able to travel to Glendalough but the advent of the camera and through the far seeing entrepreneurship of such people as William Lawrence Glendalough was opened up to those who could afford to buy postcards. Lawrence, not a photographer himself, opened up a photographic studio in his mother’s toy and fancy goods shop on Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street in 1865. He employed a number of people – printers and artists and Robert French, a photographer. French, (a former member of the Royal Irish  Constabulary, stationed in Glenealy for three years), is credited with taking 30,000 of the 40,000 of the images which forms the Lawrence Collection held in the National Library of Ireland today. The studio was looted and burned down in 1916 but the plates stored off site, survived and were acquired by the National Library of Ireland in 1942.

William Lawrence employed artists. These were used to touch up the photographs. Lawrence was obviously a pragmatic man. As you will see many of the photographs of the Round Tower were taken prior to the conical top being replaced in the late 1870s when the monastic settlement was taken over by the Board of Works. However, in one of the photographs showing the Round Tower the top has been drawn in to represent the complete tower. No doubt this was done to save the expense of having to re-take and re-print the image.

This gallery contains images from several of the National Library of Ireland Collections and is based on an exhibition, originally held in 2016, that was born out of the Glendalough Heritage Forum, and as such is a collaborative venture with a number of agencies on the Forum. The exhibition was funded by the Heritage Council and Wicklow County Council’s Heritage Office.

This gallery aims to give a flavour of Glendalough through a selection of some of the images which are held by the National Library of Ireland. They show that tourists were coming to the area on jaunting cars and motor cars in clothes which today we would consider not really conducive to exploring the countryside. One lady in the graveyard is dressed in the style of Queen Victoria. The Glendalough Hotel was captured in a number of photographs to great effect – images of people outside the hotel and sitting with the hotel as a backdrop. There is a photo of what appears to be a chef posing with visitors! People can even be seen standing in windows looking out. Look at the image enlarged showing the pavilions on the bank at the back of the Hotel, no longer in existence.

The German writer Kohl, visiting Glendalough in 1844 described his departure from the valley in just such a way:

At last we passed out through the little ivy – covered ruins gateway; and near an old hawthorn, which Irwin pointed out as marking the bounds of the town that once stood here.  We seated ourselves on our car, and drove off silently, thanking the Irish for their “ jaunting cars” whose formation allowed us to sit, that, instead of the horse before us, we could see the vanishing landscape of Glendalough behind us, on which our eyes remained eagerly fastened as long as possible.


All images are used with the kind permission and remain copyright of the National Library of Ireland.

Comments about this page

  • Interesting images from this site thank you.

    By Noelene Beckett Crowe (03/06/2020)

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